Wandering Through Washington, Part VII

Finally, after 6 weeks in the beautiful state of Washington, we made our way to the last stop, Mount Rainier National Park. It lived up to its fame.

“Of all the fire mountains which like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest.” – John Muir

It is the highest of the volcanoes along the Cascade Range at 14,410 feet. It is the most glacier covered peak of any in the continental United States. There are temperate rainforests, old growth forests, subalpine meadows and, of course,  glacial features to explore and learn about. The mountain is still an active volcano, although the last eruption was over 150 years ago. The steam from volcanic vents and the glaciers combine to affect the weather near the top, so it is difficult to get a view of the entire mountain as it is usually covered in clouds

Volcanic History

About 500,000 years ago, the mountain was formed in a fiery eruption. It grew to over 16,000 feet above sea level. Now fast forward to 5,700 years ago. A large eruption and mud flow occurred, similar to the one at Mount St. Helens in 1980. That eruption reduced the top to its present 14,000 foot range. The mudflow, known as the Osceola Mudflow, today has several small cities built on top of it (Auburn, Puyallup, Kent, Sumner). We camped in Auburn while visiting Seattle. Many smaller eruptions and flows have happened during the ensuing years.


Volcanic activity created Mount Rainier, but it is the glaciers that shape it. For example, even lava flows are diverted by the glaciers when they are thick enough. The glacial mantle covering Rainier today covers 35 square miles. There are 25 named glaciers and numerous smaller unnamed snowfields.  Mt. Rainer has the distinction of having both the largest glacier in volume (of ice) and the largest glacier in area size. Carbon Glacier is the largest glacier by volume. It doesn’t melt as much as others on the mountain because of the steepness of the valley and being on the north side. Emmons Glacier is the largest in area It extends from the summit down into the White River Valley. All the glaciers feed into 5 major rivers.

So what exactly is a glacier, anyway? I’ve mentioned them several times in my blog posts while visiting the North Cascades. I think it is time to talk about them in more detail.

A glacier is a large, heavy body of ice that flows like a river, albeit much more slowly. They form wherever snow accumulates more than it will melt in a year. As the new snow falls, it keeps compressing the older layers, which eventually transforms into dense, hard ice. The top part of the glacier is called the accumulation zone. The glacier constantly moves downhill into what is called the ablation zone. This area actually loses the yearly snowfall, but the hard ice is still present. (ablation is basically the removal of material from vaporizing, erosion, etc.)

As the glacier flows downhill, the snow layers move faster than the ice which is busy grinding and scraping away at the rock underneath. Crevasses are constantly opening and closing as a result of this movement. The constant abrasion from the ice layer creates a type of sediment called glacial flour, which drains into the rivers fed from the glacial melt, causing them to turn milky.

This image, from the US Geological Survey (USGS) shows the glaciers surrounding Mount Rainier.


I found a really cool time-lapse video of the Emmons Glacier from 2017. Below is the link to it. You can actually see the movement over a 74 day period.


The pictures of the glaciers we took, near the Paradise Visitor Center, really show the U-shaped valleys carved out by the glaciers. If a valley is formed by erosion, it will be a V-shape. Glaciers always flatten those valleys into U’s.

Another part of the park we visited was the Ohanapekosh area. It is mostly old-growth forest with lots of waterfalls. The visitor center there is not as heavily used as the Paradise, so we highly recommend a visit to this area. Ohanapekosh was one of the glaciers near the summit, but it has reached the melting point where the snow is melting too quickly and, therefore, is not turning into ice. Sometime in the future, the falls will probably stop flowing in the late summer as the water levels drop.

We also drove past the Ohanapekosh  area up to Chinook Pass. There is a small lake called Tipsoo where we got some real nice shots of the mountain and its main glaciers on the north side (Emmons and Winthrop).  But, alas, our pics have massive lenticular clouds ( remember, Mt. Rainer creates its own weather) surrounding the peak. So you can’t see the top part of the glaciers or the mountain peak.

This stop wraps up our time in Washington. We so thoroughly enjoyed our visit this summer. There are still more places to see and learn about, but we have to turn the RV in a southeast direction and start our way back. First we head to Colorado for maintenance and visits with friends. Then back to Michigan and Ohio for family. We will definitely keep Washington on our list of places to return to. We can’t wait to go back.

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